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19 February, 2012

Dissociation curiously follows the standard spheres of orientation.  In assessing orientation, the three main spheres considered are person, place and time.  Especially when level of consciousness is in question, orientation to purpose is often added.


Dissociation from person is called depersonalization — a curious feeling that one is not one’s self.  Like the symptom to be described next, it’s not uncommon for that form of dissociation to be accompanied by a panic attack though that’s not always the case. Survivors often experience a fascinating form of depersonalization which involves difficulty recognizing themselves.  They may look at an old photograph and have a curious inability to connect with the photo; they do not experience it as a picture of them.

The symptom has to do with what might alternatively be thought of as a sort of compartmentalization of their histories. (I worked with a Ph.D. candidate on her thesis, which involved work to create a standardized, written test that would identify survivors. It worked, by the way, being better than any single psychological test or combination thereof including stress scales, MMPI, and the like. To avoid the bugaboo of the concept of the “unconscious” in her oral defense, she couched everything in terms of dissociation; clever.)

Dissociation from place is called derealization.  In whatever situation the sufferers find themselves, there is a sense that it is not real.  Perhaps the best characterization of the experience is that it is like looking at a picture or video of what is in front of them rather than the reality of the moment.

Dissociation from time is manifested as déjà vu — a feeling that one has been there before.  It is an emotional experience of the present as if it reflects a past experience though any actual past experience eludes memory.  Keeping bits and pieces of themselves stored in different rooms of their minds, so to speak, helps to cope with histories and keeps memories from breaking through.  Should the monsters of the past be able to break through, there is the risk of ego-fragmenting rage and grief accompanying those memories.  The power of that rage and grief is such that it can blast the sense of self into temporary nothingness.

Because survivors have, instead of a solid block of a self, a somewhat loosely cemented self composed of bricks with fragile mortar holding it together, it can be exploded, disassembling the self into a sense of nothingness.  The defenses of survivors are largely concocted to avoid the emergence of the overwhelming and potentially fragmenting rage and grief that are associated with their memories. In a sense, it is not the memories that are defended against, but, rather, those incredibly powerful emotions.


The foregoing is all background to be being able to talk briefly about how discontinuous survivors’ own histories are experienced.  For most people, their lives are a continuous stream of historical events — a smooth, coherent movie of sorts which chronicles their lives.  Survivors, on the other hand, tend to relate to their lives as discrete vignettes with little or no connection to each other, rather like a collection of novellas which have little to do with each other.  While they can relate to, recover and remember those novellas it is as if the next novella has no relation to those which came before and those which came after.

I’m not sure what one would call this manifestation of dissociation or, if you will, compartmentalization.  Certainly it has to do with time but it has to do with person as well, since it is as if some different person, or persons, had lived those vignettes.  There is far more that could be said about the dissociation symptoms of survivors — far, far more to be sure, such as fugue states and multiple personality disorder (actually a dissociative disorder); but the near universality of their experience of their lives as a series of unrelated vignettes is particularly fascinating from a clinical perspective, not to mention particularly disconcerting in the experience of the survivor. Dissociation can take many forms. One survivor I knew would arise at night and go through the home, assaulting family members. In the morning, she would remember nothing of what she had done.


As touched on above, the concept of the unconscious has been contentious in the history of psychology. Dissociation and memory blocking (which is not much more than a form of dissociation) are widely recognized symptoms.  One way of considering what has been called the “unconscious” is to approach it as dissociation — compartmentalization, if you will.  In some ways, undoing the psychological mechanisms that separate a person from their memories may best be thought of as breaking down dissociation rather than raising to consciousness that which exists unseen within.

  1. This part “Because survivors have, instead of a solid block of a self, a somewhat loosely cemented self composed of bricks with fragile mortar holding it together, it can be exploded, disassembling the self into a sense of nothingness” Describes me as though you were talking about me in particular. Compartmentalizing is and has been my coping mechanism since I can recall.

    • Just a technical note: I once worked with a PhD candidate who developed a written test based on the syndrome intended to detect and predict a history of childhood sexual abuse. The instrument she came up with outperformed the MMPI and multiple combinations of other psychological tests in making that prediction. To get to the point: The concept of the unconscious is a testy one in the psychological professions. When it came to defending her thesis, she got around that by replacing that concept with the more broadly accepted one of dissociation (the compartmentalization you mention). Whatever the theoretical construct, the phenomenon is very real.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. A Must-Read Novel: Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation by Christine Stark « Feather Story
  2. Survivor Christine Stark’s Brilliant Novel About Dissociation « Survivors Connect Network

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